Ivan Sergejev: Europe needs Narva

Ivan Sergejev
Ivan Sergejev Source: Aron Urb

Ivan Sergejev, Narva's chief architect who is leading the city's campaign to be European Capital of Culture 2024, writes about the ideas behind Narva's bid, its history, and what it can offer Europe. And argues why it should win the bid. The winning city will be announced on Wednesday.

 "Are you Estonian or Russian?"

This is a question every Russian-speaking person in Estonia, especially residents of Narva, have to grapple with constantly. As a society, we are used to thinking in binaries: this or that, here or there, Russian or Estonian. In Narva there is no easy answer.

For example, I was born in Kamchatka into a family of a journalist and an English language teacher. My parents moved to Estonia – one of the most western and most progressive parts of the Soviet Union – when I was a baby. After the Soviet Union collapsed, we stayed here, making Estonia our home.

That makes us a good example of a typical Narva family in the sense that we are not originally from here – most of our family is based in Russia and the only truly "local" in our family is my younger sister who was born in Estonia, but even she speaks Russian as her mother tongue. We do not have multiple generations of roots growing into Estonian soil. But it is still our home.

So, are we Estonian, or are we Russian?

Narva was burned to ashes, will it rise?

The fortified settlement at Narva Joaoru area is the oldest known in Estonia, dating between 5000-8000 B.C. Trade, particularly Hanseatic long-distance trade remained Narva's main occupation throughout the Middle Ages, and in the 17th century Narva, then located on the border between Russia and Sweden, became a city of such importance that plans were entertained in Stockholm to turn it into a regional capital.

In 1659 Narva was completely destroyed in a massive fire. As was typical of that era, the city was fast rebuilt in stone in a consistent "modern" style: Nordic baroque.

A couple of centuries later Narva was erased from the face of the Earth once again — bombed to shreds during WWII. After the war the original inhabitants were not welcome back, and the city was repopulated by people brought in mostly from the western regions of Russia. In the early 1950s whatever was left standing after World War II was demolished. Instead of the beautiful Swedish merchants' town a new socialist city emerged, with a new population that today is 96 percent Russian-speaking and has lived in Narva for not longer than two generations.

Rebuilt as an industrial hub after the war, Narva was a city full of energy: the population was young and active, many were well-educated as engineers and factory workers, looking forward to a promising future in the Western-most part of the Soviet Union. Russian intellectuals set up their summer cottages at Narva-Jõesuu, innovation in the oil shale and textile industry made people proud to be working in top class industries, with the product of their labour dissipated throughout the expanse of the Soviet Union.

So it is no surprise that when Estonia regained independence it left Narva shell shocked: suddenly, a border appeared, splitting families, friendships and destinies. The industry built around the Soviet Union's massive internal market collapsed. People who had perceived themselves as the avant-garde of the working class found themselves looked upon as occupiers. Many left to look for greener pastures elsewhere, while those remaining scrambled to make something of their lives in the aftermath of a collapsed system.

Narva is a case study in disrupted histories. A transplant town. 

Untold stories

It's quite typical to assume that the color of one's passport is proof of "whose side" they are on. But it's not that simple. In Narva it is common for families to have both Estonian and Russian passports. In the majority of cases this has nothing to do with people's political views, instead at the time when the Soviet Union collapsed and families were split between different countries, it was a perfectly practical solution to a very human problem: most of the locals' relatives are on the Russian side of the border, so it made sense for at least one person in the family to keep a direct link to Russia, so that if something happened, they would be able to travel immediately. For many, this decision did prove prudent a lot of times.

This story is just one illustration of Narva's hidden meanings. The border location forces us to re-evaluate what we assume, to look for the human among the layers of political and historic narratives, and seek for the untold stories that quite often have nothing to do with subscribing to ideologies, but are about personal lives, dreams, and pursuit of self-expression.

These hidden layers, clashing narratives, hybrid identities and search for meaning is the raw material we "mine" in our quest to become the European Capital of Culture.

Taking ownership of the narrative

The impulse to apply and the candidacy's slogan grew out of a crisis.

When the annexation of Crimea occurred in 2014, Narva found itself in the spotlight of the international media, wondering, "Is Narva next?" As a city with a mostly-Russian-speaking population, relatively high unemployment, low wages, and a history of discontent, standing on the frontline – dramatically visualized by a river and the two confronting castles – embodied the clash of civilizations perfectly.

The only way to counteract this tempting yet misguided view was to "hijack" the narrative in order to provoke the international community to pay attention and see us for what we are. "Narva is next!" became that battle cry.

Yes. Narva is next. But not as the next project in someone's annexation plan. Narva is next because the people of the city, faced with this simplistic journalistic caricature, have a very different story to tell. Theirs is a story of shared history and destiny, of cultural exchange and friendship, and of everyday co-existence that generates a new hybrid culture distinctive to Narva. The people of Narva are not incidental characters in someone else's fiction; they have their own reality where Russia and Europe coalesce and where new connected cultures thrive.

In view of this, our bid for the European Capital of Culture title became an almost inevitable next step towards a common future.

What can Narva offer Europe?

Narva's candidacy presents an opportunity for Europe to build closer cultural ties with Russian artistic and creative communities, embracing the cultural wealth of their traditions, yet placing them within the European value system. Narva2024 will offer Europe a unique cultural diplomacy tool to con­nect Europe and Russia via the Rus­sian-speaking community at the border of the EU. It will bring new opportu­nities to Russians, who share European values. It will give Russian diaspora a voice, at the same time providing the EU with a pilot on working smarter with Russia.

Collaborating between East and West, between Europe and Russia, Narva will prove that creativity and diversity can turn around a pat­tern of decline by bringing together arts and innovation, entrepreneurial think­ing and creative cooperation. Narva will be joining the dots and connecting geographical, cultural, as well as sec­toral ties — acting as a bridge in the broadest sense of the word.

Narva would not be the typical or obvious choice of a European Capital of Culture. But looking at Europe today, change is inevitable. Starting from the border areas and our relationship to the neighbours is essential. The hope, optimism and sense of opportunity that we have witnessed when talking to our Russian partners proves the collaboration is deeply longed for. In Estonia cultural diplomacy with Russia has been nourished, the free thinkers and intellectuals supported. Now we can bring this in focus of in Europe.

Narva is ready for the opportunity and the responsibility of European Capital of Culture.

Narva is Next.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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